Whitbread winning poet James Fenton returned for a second appearance at the Bath Literature festival this year. Described by Ian McEwan as ‘the finest poet writing in English,’ Fenton rose to the unenviable task of choosing the pre-eminent works of fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Romantics were not renowned for their love poems (unlike Fenton). On stage, Fenton painted a realistic and rather bleak portrait of Coleridge: opium addict, manic depressive, tortured artist. Not an easy character to say the least, but then neither was Wordsworth.
Fenton stated that when considering the Romantics, people either ‘take sides with Wordsworth, or against.’ His consideration of the powerful coupling of Wordsworth and Coleridge provided an insight into the political inner workings of these great literary figures, such as Byron’s relationship with Coleridge (whom Wordsworth despised), and Wordsworth’s scourging comments about Coleridges’ quintessential poem, ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ – which was blamed for the unsuccessful edition of the ‘Lyrical Ballads.’ Similarly, Coleridge believed that Wordsworth’s ‘lucid power’ was largely inspired by his sister, Dorothy.
As with all historical figures, Fenton acknowledged the heavily vetted nature of any factual evidence that we may learn about Coleridge and his life. Yet he indulged the audience with a few choice anecdotes, including the unearthing of Wordsworth’s love letters to Mary that were found in a skip (the letters apparently revealed a great force of emotion under a frosty exterior), and that the ‘Khan’ of ‘Kubla Khan’ was in fact reported by Dorothy Wordsworth to be a can that they ‘had a bit of a laugh about’ as they kicked it around one day.
Sat in Bath’s majestic Guildhall, it felt as though Fenton was giving a sermon to the audience as he began to read his selection of Coleridge’s work. Unfortunately for some, Fenton decided against reading the ‘Ancient Mariner’ as it would have taken the length of the talk to do so. Fenton’s selection was in fact an eclectic mix including two semibiographical poems: the ‘Frost at Midnight’ and ‘This Lime-tree Bower my prison’. These are conversational poems which are pieces of evidence to learn about Coleridge’s life. In ‘Frost’ Coleridge reflects upon his uncomfortable childhood at boarding school as he cradles his son Hartley. Similarly, ‘This Lime-tree Bower my prison’ relates the experience of Coleridge missing a walk with his friends after his foot is scolded with boiling water and prevents him from walking.
Personally, the talk included a much awaited high point, as Fenton uttered the lines ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately-pleasure dome decree’ it was obvious to see that Coleridge’s quintessential poem ‘Kubla Khan’ was a favourite and a reminder of some of the more lucid work of Coleridge.
Fenton delivered this talk with fantastic insight, wit and an unbelievable amount of knowledge which illuminated some lesser known facts about Coleridge’s life and work. But of course you wouldn’t expect anything less and Fenton will no doubt appear again at the festival before too long.
See TTI’s earlier report on Booker Prize nominated author Edward St Aubyn’s rare appearance at the festival here